Northern Ireland prison reforms get a mixed review

The prison reforms for Northern Ireland which Britain has announced after the Maze prison hunger strike ended is receiving a mixed reception here. The Provisional Sinn Fein, the voice of the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA), gave the reforms a subdued welcome. The IRA claims that the reforms are a victory for its seven-month prison fast in which 10 men died.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Rev. Ian Paisley called them "a complete sellout." He was reflecting the hard-line Protestant fears that the reforms could represent a weakening of the British government's determination to combat terrorism.

Announcing the changes in prison rules, which include permission for convicts to wear their own clothes at all times, the Northern Ireland secretary, James Prior, stressed that he wanted to play his part in seeking reconciliation.

"It is time to heal the deep wounds and fresh divisions caused by the hunger strike, both inside and outside the prisons, and help to bring to an end the violence which for so long has prevented the social, political, and economic development of Northern Ireland."

But it remains to be seen whether the reforms go far enough to persuade 400 Irish Republican prisoners to drop their remaining protest, which has continued since 1976, and begin wearing clothes, instead of blankets. The hunger strike itself collapsed Oct. 3. And earlier they stopped another protest campaign -- smearing excrement on their cell walls -- also aimed at winning special status for "political" prisoners.

In general, most Roman Catholics in the province see the swift response by Prior as a sign that the British government wants to seize the opportunity of a relaxation in community tensions to defuse the prison issue and get down to political bargaining, if possible. Until now, the hunger strike has dominated the political scene, polarizing the population and preventing any movement toward a devolved power sharing administration for Northern Ireland.

Many Protestants, however, live in fear that the British will cave in to the Irish nationalist cause. The reaction of some members of the Official Unionist Party, which governed the province from 1921 to 1970, was little short of hysterical.

The most controversial reform is the decision to restore to conforming prisoners half of the remission (like parole) of sentences that they lost while on protest. This means they can now qualify for 50 percent of the full remission for good behavior.

This is one aspect that has drawn protest from both Protestant and Roman Catholic spokesmen. The Protestants claim that it represents surrender to terrorists. From the reverse viewpoint, the Catholics had been calling for full remission to be restored to prisoners off the blanket protest.

Other reforms deal with the hunger strikers' demands for the right to free association within the prison blocks and to opt out of normal prison work. Mr. Prior said he accepted that there should be concessions to increase from 25 to 50 the number of other prisoners whom an inmate can associate with in off hours. On work, he said he wanted to encourage a system where the present training and educational facilities should be available to all.

Meanwhile, Gerry Adams, vice-president of the Provisional Sinn Fein, said he awaited the response of the "political prisoners."

"What is for certain," he said, "is that the fight by the prisoners to wear their own clothes has been won by the deaths of the 10 H-block martyrs and by the sacrifice of the prisoners and their families during the longest prison protest in modern history."

If his reforms are accepted and the present IRA protest is ended, there is no guarantee that a better atmosphere will be created, because of Protestant fears. As unionists see it, the IRA is an implacable enemy, and the prospect of increasing numbers of convicted gunmen being released on to the streets in winter, to face 30 percent male unemployment, is a daunting one.

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